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Libya's Kadafi greeted with Paris pomp, fury

Former pariah's visit includes dinner at presidential palace. Human rights minister is among those who object.

December 11, 2007|Geraldine Baum | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — After 34 years, Col. Moammar Kadafi, formerly among the most ostracized men in the world, returned to the heart of Western civilization for a five-day visit to the French capital, including dinner Monday night at the presidential palace.

The leader of oil-rich Libya came with his own Bedouin tent for entertaining and an open checkbook to buy billions of euros in French goods -- including 21 Airbus planes, fighter jets and a nuclear-powered desalination plant for making drinkable water.

The visit, although publicly denounced by many here, including the French human rights minister, is the latest chapter in the rehabilitation of a former revolutionary who seized power in his 20s in 1969 and proceeded to earn a reputation for treachery by diverting Libya's oil wealth to support rebels and Islamic militants. President Reagan labeled him "the mad dog."

Kadafi, 65, has since made a big investment in reforming his world standing. His nation took responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks involving Libyan officials and paid millions of dollars in compensation for the downing of a commercial jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, which killed 270 people, and of another 10 months later over Niger in Africa, which killed 170. In 2003, Kadafi negotiated his way to further respectability with a decision to give up his program to develop weapons of mass destruction.

"As much as it pains me to see Col. Kadafi in France, if we don't accept him it gives power to the people who want Libya to continue to be a terrorist state," said Guillaume Denoix de Saint Marc, whose father was among those who died in the bombing over Niger. "As long as Libya continues to be a normal country, we have to accept Mr. Kadafi. Even if it wakes up our pain."

Kadafi was received in Brussels at the European Parliament in 2004, and several foreign leaders -- including Britain's Tony Blair and France's Jacques Chirac -- visited Tripoli, the Libyan capital, in recent years.

But the last barrier to reciprocal invitations was the imprisonment of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who were charged with infecting Libyan children with HIV/AIDS. After international diplomats spent months negotiating for their release, French President Nicolas Sarkozy closed the deal in July by sending his then-wife, Cecilia, to Tripoli. She helped convince the Libyan chief that 8 1/2 years was too long to keep the medics imprisoned. After their release, Sarkozy traveled to Tripoli and assured Kadafi that he would receive lucrative French contracts. Sarkozy also extended the red-carpet invitation to Paris.

The last time Kadafi landed at Paris' Orly airport -- on Nov. 22, 1973 -- he was described as bounding down the steps, bareheaded and dressed in a dark blue suit and tie. There were also contracts on the table that day and dark clouds in the sky. He demanded that France deliver more and better arms to Libya, possibly including atomic weapons.

This time, although many of the conditions were the same -- the skies were dark as Kadafi landed at Orly and contracts for 10 billion euros in deals were inked -- a different Kadafi emerged from a white stretch Mercedes in the courtyard of the presidential Elysee Palace. In his flowing brown robes and flowing dark hair, he walked slowly, almost regally, as he inspected the palace guard and calmly shook the hand of the younger French president. He didn't even hint at wanting nuclear power for weapons, but rather for desalinating water and other power projects, all aimed at modernizing a Libya that, after years of living under sanctions, has a lot of catching up to do.

At the palace dinner for about 60 guests Monday night, there was warm conversation at the head table and a menu that began with a fricassee of mushrooms, followed by lamb cooked for seven hours, and concluding with chocolate cake. According to one guest, there were no toasts.

What hasn't changed is that, by his very presence, Kadafi continues to create controversy. Critics from a raft of human rights groups and French liberal circles have eviscerated Sarkozy for granting the visit. As well, his own secretary of state for human rights, Rama Yada, a young left-leaning woman of Senegalese origin whom Sarkozy has showcased as an example of his open government, gave an interview to a French paper expressing disgust that Kadafi was arriving on International Human Rights Day. She also asserted that her country was not "a doormat on which a leader, terrorist or not, can come and wipe the blood of his crimes off his feet."

"France," she added, "should not receive this kiss of death."

After an initial meeting Monday with Kadafi, Sarkozy said he had asked the Libyan leader to make "progress" on human rights but also said France had a grave responsibility to encourage "those who renounce terrorism, who renounce the possession of nuclear arms."

Many international experts are wondering if the visit is a prelude to another Kadafi trip abroad -- the next time to America

"Kadafi wants to be part of a united Africa, he wants to be a historical leader," said Abdel Qassem Smida, a Cairo-based Libya expert and a former Egyptian Cabinet member. "We say if he wants to go next to New York, to Washington, why not?"

Kadafi is in France until Saturday. He is expected to meet again with Sarkozy to discuss crises in Africa and the Middle East as well as entertain various French businessmen and dignitaries in his heated Bedouin tent, which has been erected in the courtyard of the 19th century guesthouse where he is staying. He'll also visit the French National Assembly, address African diplomats at UNESCO, walk through Versailles and go hunting, as well as get together with women from rundown immigrant ghettos and with French intellectuals at the Ritz Hotel, according to a presidential spokesman.

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